Cheteshwar Pujara - The worker ant

Why the fact that there is nothing dazzling about Pujara's batting is a good thing

Some years ago I watched a day’s cricket at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. I have forgotten the year, the tournament, the teams and most of the players. I am guessing it must have been a Mumbai-Saurashtra match but I could be wrong. Maybe it was a Duleep Trophy game. I am not sure. I can find out but that would defeat the purpose.

What I remember is Cheteshwar Pujara batting. I forget his score. I am sure it was fifty or a hundred - one ardent fan, a regular at the Wankhede (I think his name was Gaudalkar) ran onto the field to hug him. But I forget if Pujara went on to a big score. I don’t remember how he got out, if he indeed did.

What else do I remember. Hmm. I spent most of the day sitting in the stands above the Garware pavilion reading a book. Obviously I have forgotten which book. I can’t give you details of the weather but we can safely assume it was a hot day, that the air was viscous and that the sea breeze picked up after tea. That’s how it usually is at the Wankhede.

It is highly likely that I might have dozed off at some stage of the day. Many domestic matches lull me into a happy slumber, especially in that delicate session after lunch. I wonder how the players stay awake, though it isn’t uncommon to see a third-man, fine-leg or deep backward square leg let out noticeable yawns. Watch these guys when you visit a stadium next.

I don’t remember any Pujara stroke from that day. No drive, punch or pull imprinted itself in my memory. At no point did I sit erect in my seat, eyes wide open, mouth agape. Not once did I go ‘ooofff’ or ‘aaawww’. There was no wind-up of the back-lift, no exaggerated follow-through. I don’t think he struck a six because a six in a first-class match, however inconsequential, is hard to forget.

I don’t remember the ball screaming off his bat, neither do I recall a hammered ‘tock’ - a sound more detectable in eerie domestic fields than in raucous international ones. There was no discernible urgency between the stumps, no flurry of fours. At least that’s what my memory tells me.

I am dead certain that I didn’t watch every ball that Pujara faced. I don’t watch cricket that way. When alone at a cricket match I am usually engaged in a book or a newspaper (often it’s not the news or the editorials but the crossword puzzles and sudoku that keeps me occupied). When with a group, I am often more interested in the chatter - random observations about a section of the crowd, a stray comment about a player, a joke. Cricket is a wonderful backdrop; life goes on regardless.

And that’s all I remember from that day.

***

I’ve been thinking about this Pujara fellow. It’s taken me a while to warm up to him. He is not a batsman who takes instant flight, nor one who burrows with apparent effort. He doesn’t deal in stealth nor is he interested in pugnacity.

Instead there is a wholesomeness about him. He is that guy in the opposition who is hardest to get out. In league cricket parlance, he may be called a ‘solid’ batsman, or more accurately a ‘ssssaaw-lid’ batsman. The longer the solid, the more attention one must pay.

These fellows are impossible. Sledging them is useless; trying to get under their skin - as James Anderson tried when he bumped into Pujara in the third session of the first day - futile. You can’t irritate them out - they will leave deliveries outside off all day and all night, then they will flick a loose ball on leg for four. You can’t find any obvious weakness. Probe outside off at Ahmedabad, so be it; bounce at Mumbai, so be it.

We’ve all seen these guys at various levels of cricket. They will defend impeccably over after over before tapping a single, wangling a two, and occasionally - shock! horror! - pinching a four. There is a serene industriousness about them, worker ants who ferry grains of rice. They will reach thirty before you have even started paying them any attention. Once they’re set they may - if the planets are properly aligned - offer you a chance. If you miss - as England did on the first day in Mumbai - you’re in trouble.

The history of Indian domestic cricket is littered with such batsmen, many of whom mastered the worker-ant method at the first-class level. However Pujara’s early success - and let’s remember he is only seven Tests old and yet to score big abroad - also represents a success for an oft-maligned system.

Anyone who has even remotely followed the Indian domestic scene for the last five years would tell you that Cheteshwar Pujara can make runs. Rain wets, fire burns, Pujara scores. Simple.

The question mark hovering over him was the one that has hovered over many prolific domestic run-machines: Can he translate his success to the higher level? Can he use the same ‘solid’ approach to conquer international bowlers? Does he have the temperament to make big scores against top quality opposition on challenging pitches?

He has partly answered the question. The most refreshing aspect about this - which should gladden several batsmen around the country - is that he has managed this without trying anything fancy. He’s not grown wings, he’s not sharpened his claws, he’s not attached any scales.

Instead he’s done pretty much the same thing that turned him into a run-ogre at the first-class level. He has walked. Upright, measured and understated, he has taken one step, then another, one more step, and another.

There is nothing dazzling about this. There is a reason walking - and I’m referring to the assured, steady variety - is not a spectator sport. But it’s solid. Very, very solid. And for a team on the cusp of a generational transition, that works just fine.

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